Ralph Miliband: accurate diagnosis, faulty prescription

Issue 

Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left
By Michael Newman
Merlin Press, 2002
368 pages, $52.70 (pb)

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

Many socialists in Britain have Ralph Miliband to thank for saving them from the sad fate of becoming a political obstacle to socialist change. Paul Foot, the prominent British journalist and revolutionary Marxist, was one who, "when cheerfully contemplating a life as a Labour MP", was put off that plan forever in 1961 by reading Miliband's Parliamentary Socialism which exposed "the awful gap between the aspirations and achievements of parliamentary socialists".

Miliband's positive impact on an entire generation of British (and international) socialists is ably assessed, and deservedly celebrated, in Michael Newman's biography of one of Britain's leading Marxist political scientists.

Born Adolphe Miliband to Polish Jewish parents in Brussels in 1924, Miliband arrived in London as a refugee on the last boat to leave Belgium before the Nazi invasion in 1940. An atheist from age 10, and a Marxist from age 16, Miliband dived into radical and Communist Party-aligned student politics at the London School of Economics (LSE), before joining the British navy to help chase the Nazis from occupied Europe.

A talented and inspiring teacher at the LSE from 1949, Miliband was, politically homeless during the early post-war years. Critical of Stalinism, Miliband rejected the Communist Party; never attracted to Trotskyism, he spurned the anti-Stalinist "far left". There was nowhere else to go but the Labour Party, which he joined in 1951 with hopes high that Labour could legislate "socialism" into existence through the nationalisation of industry and social welfare programs.

As the Labour left-wing made heavy weather during the Cold War, dumping principles to stay afloat in a conservative climate, Miliband's frustration with Labour grew and he became a key figure in the independent "New Left", finding new colleagues and a fresh audience, principally through the network of socialist intellectuals around the journal New Left Review, and then, following a factional war within the NLR editorial board, the annual Socialist Register which Miliband edited for nearly 30 years.

Miliband, however, had not fully abandoned hope in the Labour Party and his 1961 book, Parliamentary Socialism, was intended as a call for the reform of the party before it was too late. Ironically, the book's rigorous critique of the reformist politics of social-democratic parties turned most of its readers away from the Labour Party and, although not exploring alternative socialist strategies, the book spurred many of its readers towards extra-parliamentary action.

For a while, Miliband failed to heed his own analysis — that Labour in government failed because it refused to acknowledge that the economic power of the capitalist class remains the core to who runs society — and was active in a Labour Party left group, Victory for Socialism.

With the social and political crises of the 1960s throwing up new challenges and hope, however, Miliband finally cut his ties to the party. He was particularly moved to act by his disgust with the support to the US war against Vietnam given by the Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson. For all his life, Miliband regarded the US as the most dangerous, counter-revolutionary imperialist force in the world, and its vicious assault on Vietnam was the acid test which the Labour Party ignominiously failed.

Miliband's hostility to elite power was again to the fore when the LSE was hit by student occupations and the university authorities reacted with heavy-handed repression (suspensions, dismissals, closure and arrests). Miliband was one of the few LSE academics who sided with the students.

The campus protests and their suppression taught Miliband one central political lesson: "That what the Establishment understands, solely understands, is collective and resolute power, in other words oppositional power. It doesn't give a damn about all the rest" (such as its proclaimed liberal dedication to the free pursuit of knowledge and freedom of speech).

The LSE "troubles" also taught Miliband that the "university teacher, as a social type, is not at all attractive" — their timidity and cowardice, and their alliance with the ruling power through acting as police spies on students and supporting the dismissal of lecturers because of their views, repelled Miliband and prompted his move to Leeds University before becoming a roving academic-at-large, centred in Boston.

With elite power so dramatically displayed right under Miliband's nose on campus, his second book, The State in Capitalist Society, soared on the popular up-draught of the turbulent sixties. Miliband mounted the Marxist case that the dominant economic class is also the ruling class through its (often indirect but always effective) control over political decision-making and its influence over the leading personnel and social role of the bureaucracy, judiciary, police and military. The book found a strong resonance in an era (the early 1970s) of protest and industrial militancy and reinforced Miliband's (and Marxism's) status with those in struggle.

During the 1980s and 1990s, when (even amongst some on the left), Marxism was declared to be in "crisis", and the relevance, and even existence, of the working class was questioned, Miliband stuck impressively to his socialist guns, defending the primacy of the working class and the class nature of the state.

Although often portrayed as a Marxist "dinosaur" by those for whom class analysis had become unfashionable, there were increasing signs that Miliband, too, was not immune from the ideological pressures of the age at century's end. Socialism for a Sceptical Age, released just after his death in 1994, was a typically vehement condemnation of the inequality and oppression of capitalism. Yet Miliband muted his previous criticisms of social- democratic parliamentarism, advocating a constitutionally elected Labour government legislating for nationalisation within a mixed economy.

In more rebellious decades, Miliband had dismissed calls for a socialist Labour government as akin to wishing "for elephants who can fly". Now, however, he allowed hope to triumph over expectation, and dreamt of labour reformists growing socialist wings.

Miliband's advocacy of the very thing he had earlier shown to be futile is not as surprising as it may seem because there had always been an underlying ambivalence about Miliband's politics. Miliband was brilliant in showing the non-socialist nature of the Labour Party, and the capitalist nature of the state, but this posed an obvious question: what is the alternative?

Even in his best Marxist-informed work, there was no clear articulation on the transition to socialism. Whilst the concept of class was always central to his analysis of inequality and power, class forces were not seen as the key dynamic for change. Miliband never subscribed to working-class revolution led by a revolutionary party and the establishment of popular organs of power.

Miliband (and his biographer) caricature Leninists, the far left and the Bolshevik revolution as inevitably leading to dictatorship — "there is much more than a hyphen separating Marxism from Leninism". With revolution ruled out, all that was left was reform, and the agency for that could only be the social-democratic parties; the role for socialists is to ginger them to the left.

Miliband's ventures in establishing new independent socialist parties, offering something between "ultra-leftism" and "left-labourism", initially galvanised many independent leftists, including the Labour left around Tony Benn, but ran out of steam from the lack of a clear political identity (disappearing into the gap between the revolutionary left and the Labour Party).

With social-democratic parties increasingly abandoning the program and even the rhetoric of reform, whether in government (Labour in Britain) or in opposition (Labor in Australia), the class role played by the alternative parties of big business has never been clearer, and the parliamentary road to socialism never more utopian.

Despite Miliband's faulty prescription, his Marxist diagnosis of the ills of capitalism, the political pathologies of Labour's record in government and the capitalist nature of the state remain essential to any Marxist today. Miliband's significant achievement, which his biographer very capably demonstrates, was to make socialism a matter of common sense, helping to keep well and truly on the table the socialist future he so desperately wanted and dedicated his life to.